E-commerce is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. In the US, where e-commerce has been well-established since the early-2000s, the industry continues to grow at 16% per year, while traditional retail lags at just 3.8% yearly growth.
All this online shopping means a lot more shipping. While the average retail item is handled five times before it is bought, most products purchased online are handled up to 20 times before reaching the customer’s hands.
To protect those products, online retailers resort to piling on packaging - think bubble wrap, styrofoam, and massive cardboard boxes - most of which will go straight to a landfill. In the US, over 165 billion packages get sent every year, requiring almost 1 billion trees to make the cardboard.
As consumers have become savvier and aware of their environmental impact, e-commerce businesses must step up their packaging to become eco-friendly. Upgrading packaging not only decreases a business’ carbon footprint but also can help a brand stand out to customers and can even lower logistics costs.
What is eco-friendly packaging?
Have you ever received a package, only to open it up and realize it is 90% air? Many online retailers are guilty of “over packaging” with the idea of protecting a small product inside.
Eco-friendly packaging, or green packaging, is a way to push back against traditional, highly-disposable shipment methods. After all, almost half of the plastic produced worldwide will only be used once before it is thrown away.
Rather than using non-biodegradable, single-use plastics and large cardboard boxes, eco-friendly packaging focuses on minimizing waste and prioritizing reusable or recyclable materials with fewer toxins.
There are many different options for eco-friendly packaging, meaning businesses from all sizes and industries can use green packaging and stay on brand.
5 Eco-Friendly Packaging Alternatives
Green packaging does not have to look like boring, brown, recycled cardboard, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be more expensive than traditional methods. For many businesses, packaging is a way to express their brand, so get creative with eco-friendly packaging, as well!
Many new materials imitate plastics and other common packaging products, but businesses can also think outside the box (literally) to create reusable packaging that even adds value to consumers.
Here are a few options for businesses who are looking to upgrade to eco-friendly packaging.
Starch-based packing peanuts.
Traditional packing peanuts are made of styrofoam, which can take up to 500 years to biodegrade. Starch-based peanuts have the same protective power as the conventional styrofoam version, only they can be dissolved in water within minutes, minimizing their environmental impact. Starch-based packing peanuts are made of agricultural waste, as compared to polystyrene, which is made from petroleum. These foam pellets can be fantastic option for shipping fragile goods that need significant protection.
Plastics are famous for sticking around. By 2025, there will be one ton of plastic in the ocean for every three tons of fish. Biodegradable plastics can breakdown in sunlight and are often made of plant by-products, rather than petroleum. While it might not be as cost-effective or long-lasting as regular plastic, biodegradable plastic can significantly reduce the waste created by your packaging.
If the item being sent is not fragile, it might not need much protection beyond the original packaging. After all, most products end up being double or triple-packaged by the time they reach the consumer. Instead, try wrapping products in cotton or burlap fabrics that can protect the original package from bumps and scratches. When purchased in bulk, this package option might be even more cost-effective than boxes, and produces fewer toxins during production.
Paper or reusable envelopes.
Paper and cardboard, common packaging materials, are already recyclable. However, suppliers commonly create boxes that are far too large for the product inside, wasting material and space. Not only does this waste material, it also increases costs for the e-commerce business. Instead, create thinner, smaller packaging - like an envelope - that fits the product more closely to decrease shipping costs and wasted cardboard. Better yet, use a reusable envelope that customers can send back once they have received their item.
Creative, reusable packaging.
Instead of using materials that are meant to be thrown away, dream up a new use for your packaging. A box printed with cutting instructions could become a doll house or a cat’s new nest. A very durable container could be folded up and sent back to the retailer for reuse. A burlap sack could become a new reusable grocery tote. With the right mindset, there are thousands of options for e-commerce businesses looking to rebrand with a more eco-friendly style.
Where to Purchase Eco-Friendly Packaging
Sustainable packaging materials might be slightly harder to source than the usual plastic and cardboard wrappings. You may need to do some research to find a provider that can design and construct creative packaging materials that don’t damage the environment.
In the US, several startups have popped up to tackle the challenge. Limeloop is a green packaging startup that creates sturdy, reusable packaging out of billboard vinyl and organic cotton.
The packages are also connected to sensors that monitor your shipments and can send updates to your smartphone about your package’s environmental impact.
The packet can be reused for up to ten years and is incredibly simple to use; companies simply rent or buy the “shipper” to send an item and the customer sends back the package once they receive their product.
Limeloop’s European counterpart, Repack, uses sturdy yellow envelopes that can also be sent back to the company to be reused, decreasing up to 80% of waste.
This option is cost-neutral to the e-commerce business, as it is a choice made by the client upon checkout, and the startup foots the cost of returning the package to the sender.
Other companies focus on improving the materials that make up traditional packaging, creating innovative replacements for Styrofoam, plastic, and cardboard. Brazil’s petrogiant, Braskem, developed a plastic packaging made of sugarcane rather than petroleum, which is being used for shopping bags and flexible shipping materials.
Another Brazilian firm, Tatil Design, has repeatedly won awards for designing sustainable, eco-friendly packaging alternatives for companies across dozens of industries.
Worldwide, hundreds of companies, from startups to corporations, have begun to feel the ecological and commercial push to create more sustainable packaging for shipment.
Even in China, the world’s largest e-commerce market, online retail giant Alibaba is pushing for 100% recycled boxes and electric shipment vehicles as a result of the colossal amount of waste produced by the e-commerce industry there.
How Large and Small Scale Businesses can Use Eco-Friendly Packaging
There is a big difference in the environmental impact of a massive e-commerce retailer, like MercadoLibre or Amazon, and a small shop that only sends out a few (or a few hundred) packages a month.
Large and small-scale businesses may require different approaches to adopting eco-friendly packaging, mostly due to variables like cost, production volume, and variety of products being shipped.
Here are some of the challenges and opportunities facing large and small businesses that want to adopt more sustainable packaging alternatives.
For a company like Amazon, MercadoLibre, or Alibaba, the difficulties of adopting sustainable packaging are two-fold. First, these sites are made up of thousands of suppliers that are scattered around the country (or the world), all of whom must comply with the same regulations.
Making a wholesale packaging switch might be a slow and painful process. Second, as these sites offer millions of products, they must be able to find a producer who can create packaging that is flexible to every item available on the site, and do so at scale.
However, the environmental impact of improving packaging for giant retailers is undeniable. These three e-commerce retailers alone probably dwarf all other businesses in their region in terms of packaging waste.
Therefore, a large business could streamline their transition to sustainable packaging by partnering with a factory or large corporation that uses green replacements for traditional materials. These producers will be able to adapt to the needs of a massive operation that ships out thousands, or even millions, of different products every day.
A small e-commerce business might look like anything from an individual’s craft store - selling just a few items a month - to an independent bookstore that sells a few hundred products a month.
However, for the most part, smaller businesses will deal with a much less varied set of products, meaning they might be able to depend on a single packaging system.
Small e-commerce stores looking to implement green packaging would be a great fit for startups like Limeloop or Repack since they would be able the handle the reusable package turnover more easily.
Since these containers are less flexible in size, they are more apt for companies that send only a limited range of products.
While a reusable package model might require some upfront costs, depending on the provider, these options tend to be cost-neutral - or even more cost-effective - for small businesses in the long term. They also eliminate waste of all kinds, a goal which is next to impossible for any large company.
Three Famous Companies Using Eco-Friendly Packaging
Luckily, the world’s two largest e-commerce leaders – Amazon and Alibaba – have already begun implementing sustainable packaging for some of their products.
This move proves that eco-friendly shipping materials are not reserved just for niche hippie retailers; e-commerce companies of any size can reduce their environmental impact by improving their packaging.
Here’s how three well-known companies have upgraded their packaging to protect the environment.
Amazon: Amazon debuted its “Frustration-Free Packaging Program” in 2008 in response to backlash about difficult-to-open or overly-packaged products.
Over 750,000 items are now shipped using smaller and more efficient packages, saving 215,000 tons of packing material. When possible, Amazon also ships products in their original package or in an envelope to avoid “shipping air.”
Puma: Puma has been a market leader in creating less harmful packaging for its shoes. In 2010, the company eliminated shoeboxes, replacing them with slip-on bags that significantly reduce paper and fuel use as compared with traditional boxes. They also redesigned their sandal hangers to be made of recycled paper rather than petroleum-based plastics.
Dell: Dell started using bamboo packaging for small devices in 2008, but took a huge step this year in making a commitment to use 100% compostable or recyclable packing materials by 2020. The computer company is also famous for using packages made from fungus and other agricultural waste, which have helped the company cut energy use and costs.
60% of consumers are more likely to purchase from a company that uses sustainable packaging.
In China, Alibaba found that 70% of respondents to a survey would be willing to pay 10% more to receive their product in a greener container. As e-commerce grows worldwide, consumers have also become more savvy and discerning, voting with their dollars for companies that support the causes that move them.
E-commerce companies should begin to care for the environment if they want to provide the best possible service to their rapidly-evolving clientele.